In early 2014, the Recorder ran a story about Joe Calve leaving after four years as MoFo's CMO. The firm acknowledged Joe's contributions and wished him well. 

After finishing with Joe, the story moved to the macro level, citing CMO vacancies at 26 out of 100 AmLaw firms. To me, the story within this story was a quote from legal recruiter Melanie Bennet:

"These searches can take firms one to two years. There's almost always a gap [between CMOs]. It's an opportunity for firms to revisit their strategy, take a breath and think about how they want to move forward."

She added that, with compensation approaching "the partner-comp level," hiring a CMO at an AmLaw 20 firm is "a big decision for firms, to define the position and find the right person."

Obviously, Ms. Bennet's "can take" implies "up to," an outlier duration. Steve Nelson, a recruiter who manages the government and legal affairs groups for The McCormick Group, suggested that 6-7 months would be more the norm, but acknowledged that a number of searches (not his own) have taken a year or more.

We know there's no shortage of marketing and BD people interested in making the kind of money law firms pay, so there's likely ample candidate flow available.

Yes, but...

I accept that hiring someone at CMO-level responsibility and compensation is an important decision. However, so is hiring a lateral partner or, for firms' clients, a CEO or other senior executive. Yet, those type searches don't take most of a year. In fact, they take a fraction of that.

exec search metrics.jpg

A Google search for "length of time, executive search" yields consistent results, i.e., that executive searches take roughly 3-4 months. This graphic showing results of a survey by BSG Team Ventures is representative; 109 days is 3.6 months.

CEO searches: 3-4 months

Add this from Jim Gilreath, who places "skin in the game" CEOs at private equity firms' portfolio companies:

"Allow 12–16 weeks from initial job posting and networking effort, to screening candidates, to CEO Job offer acceptance, and a starting date to be set. Quite a few private equity firms have taken 6 months to fill a CEO vacancy on their own; others have taken 1 year doing the search themselves. In the latter case, the problem there is the specs are overly tight, they may not want to relocate anyone, or they may not be offering competitive compensation, or worse they don’t really know what they are looking for."

It's a bit ironic that the title of Jim's article is "Hiring a top caliber CEO is not as easy as you think," which suggests that his 3-4 month estimate reflects a company going about it in a thorough, diligent way, certainly not one cutting corners.

Why so long for law firm searches?

So, why does it take a law firm 2-8 times as long to hire an executive? Unless law partners are prepared to argue that they're more than twice as busy as their corporate clients, could it be that a big reason for law firms' glacial hiring pace is found in Gilreath's last phrase: "...they don't really know what they are looking for"?

Because lawyers' grasp of marketing and sales is so marginal, it's hard to imagine them having a clear picture of what they're looking for. Would you or I be able to express a clear definition of what we're looking for in a "biomass regenerator"? (OK, I made that up. It probably doesn't exist, but you get the idea.)

Perhaps my almost 30 years in this industry have made me cynical, but I can't help but attribute a big chunk of the delay to lawyers not attaching much priority to Marketing or Sales as a business function. If I’m right, it shouldn’t surprise us that hiring someone to oversee it isn’t a priority.

With CMO/BDO salaries well into the fee-earner level ($250-400k), the value of which lawyers do understand, you could also see them perhaps being just a bit reluctant to spend the money.

Whether the correct search duration is six or twelve months, or much more, partners must not see many tangible effects of a CMO vacancy, or they'd be in a bigger hurry to fill it. IMO, that speaks more to the limits that lawyers' aversion to real marketing and sales imposes on their marketing or BD departments.

What's your take on this? Please share your thoughts in the Comment section below.

Mike O'Horo

One problem that plagues every organization is the difficulty they have making decisions. If that includes your firm, let me know. We've adapted for law firm decisions a group-decision process proven in the corporate world.